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The war spreads to all in ‘Iphigenia’ July 21, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Americas.

Political leaders who rush forward with a senseless military campaign under specious motives. A war fought in a foreign land to protect freedom and fight terrorism. It sounds achingly familiar, but the text is more than 2,400 years old.

Under Douglas Lay’s excellent direction, Euripides’ “Iphigenia at Aulis,” now playing at 6th @ Penn Theatre, aptly demonstrates the timelessness of war. Euripides’ antiwar sentiments come through loud and clear in a new translation by Marianne McDonald that is contemporary, natural and accessible. Lay has given “Iphigenia” a modern context to match McDonald’s translation.

The military camp on the shores of Aulis is covered in camouflage netting and littered with storage drums and boxes in Vincent Sneddon’s effective set design. Ruff Yeager, as the Greek commander Agamemnon, appears in army fatigues, while Rhys Greene as his brother, Menelaus, dons the Marines’ dress blues.

The soldiers languish in idleness as they await favorable winds to sail to Troy, where they’ll sack the city in retribution for the kidnapping of Helen. In the age of media blitz and celebrity obsession, Menelaus has been cuckolded on a humiliatingly grand scale. Agamemnon has been told that the necessary winds will not come unless he sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia (Michelle Cabinian), to appease the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia under the pretext that she is to marry the warrior Achilles (Giancarlo Ruiz).

Iphigenia and her mother, Clytemnestra (Robin Christ), arrive like pop stars. Their helicopter lands with a deafening roar and a gust of wind, while Secret Service types clear the area before bringing in stacks of luggage.

All hell breaks loose when Clytemnestra discovers the truth in a chance meeting with Achilles. Ruiz plays Achilles with a comedic touch, highlighting the soldier’s vanity. He swaggers and poses, and in the face of the sacrifice of an innocent girl indignantly exclaims, “I’ve been offended. That’s serious!” His only beef is that Agamemnon hatched this plan using him as “bait” without his permission.

Other attempts at humor are not as successful. A messenger who delivers the news of Iphigenia’s arrival appears here as a TV reporter (Melissa Hamilton) with cameraman (Anthony Hamm) in tow. The scene, played for laughs, feels forced. At its heart, “Iphigenia” is a family drama, and Yeager, Christ and Cabinian provide the heartbreaking pathos.

Yeager, with a simmering anger and restrained lunacy, is believably tormented by the choice he must make. He is alternately compassionate and callous, torn between family and country. Christ, who portrays agonizing pain so well, does it again as Iphigenia’s mother. Her impassioned plea for her daughter’s life and her final grief-stricken wail bring the brutal reality of war out of abstraction.

Cabinian deftly shifts from innocent daddy’s girl to noble sacrificial lamb. But how honorable is her newfound sense of purpose? As she goes willingly to the sacrificial altar so the Greeks may teach the “barbarians” a lesson, Don’t steal our women, she may be simply buying into the collective madness.

For the play is also about a certain kind of madness that takes hold of men at war, the rush to violence and the folly of the mob that buys into the government-issued rhetoric. Agamemnon feels trapped into sacrificing his daughter, yet the situation in many ways is one of his own power-hungry creations.

Based on Leigh Scarritt’s compositions, the young women of the chorus (Judy Ho, Leti Carranza, Tatiana Holthaus, Dorothy Guthrie and Sarah Knapp), all fine singers, add much welcomed music and movement to the production. Through the course of the play, they transform into the wives left behind, seductive groupies and mourners. Here, finally, is a chorus in the Greek tradition that is both engaging and relevant.

This “Iphigenia” is a powerful antidote to the misguided allure of war. After all, Iphigenia’s death signals the start of the Trojan War and another cycle of death among the populace and the house of Atreus.

As war rages around the world today, the play’s plea for cooler heads to prevail and its challenge to notions of courage, honor and sacrifice are more relevant than ever.
Playwright: Euripides. Translation: Marianne McDonald. Director: Douglas Lay. Set design: Vincent Sneddon. Composer: Leigh Scarritt. Lighting design: Mitchell Simkovsky. Sound design: Eusevio Cordoba. Cast: Ruff Yeager, Jack Winans, Judy Ho, Leti Carranza, Tatiana Holthaus, Dorothy Guthrie, Sarah Knapp, Rhys Greene, Melissa Hamilton,Anthony Hamm, Robin Christ, Michelle Cabinian, Giancarlo Ruiz.

“Iphigenia at Aulis”
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays Through Aug. 6. Sixth at Penn
Theatre, 3704 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest $20-$23 (619) 688-9210 or www.sixthatpenn.com

EDITOR’S NOTE > Article by Jennifer Chung, © Copyright 2006 San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.

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